If you’ve read my about me page, you might be inclined to argue that my choice for best movie couldn’t possibly be fair. It’s not. Snobs are not known for being egalitarian. But, in my defense:
- I waited until 2012 to announce it, rather than the majority of critics who had decided before 2011 was officially bracketed.
- All movies considered were released theatrically in the US, and I sat through them in their entirety.
- It’s about sports.
- It makes the French look bad.
The best movie of 2011 is….. SENNA, “Aryton Senna: Beyond the Speed of Sound.”
This superbly crafted documentary introduced me to the most fascinating, inspiring, talented, gracious, handsome athlete I’d never heard of.
My friend and St. Louis Post-Dispatch film critic Joe Williams declared ” …’Senna’ is simply the greatest sports film I have ever seen.”
Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian Formula One champion driver who was tragically killed during a race in 1994 at the age of 34. He was a hero to the Brazilian people, arguably more popular than Pélé in his heyday. But what moved me so deeply about this film was the revelation of the character of this man. I cannot think of an international celebrity today, in sports, entertainment, politics, on the international stage for whatever reason, who knew the magnitude of his own talent, was relentless in his pursuit to win, yet was humble with no trace of arrogance. (Bono doesn’t even come close.)
The director, Asif Kapadia, had unprecedented access to Senna’s family’s home movies and, most significantly, Formula One documentary footage graciously provided by its CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Because of this, we actually get to see events unfold just as they did, without the distraction of re-enactments or having to solely rely on eyewitness’ recollections. In an interview with Richard B. Woodward of the Wall Street Journal, Kapadia mentions that by the time of his death “Senna was so famous… that his every move at the track was covered by 30 or 40 cameras.” This treasure trove of footage allows the story to tell itself.
If you think, as I did before seeing this film, that Formula One is a sport in which whomever crosses the finish line first is the winner, you would be wrong. Aryton Senna’s character emerges as we see him overcome the unfair and deliberate obstacles set up for him by the French Formula One president Jean-Marie Balestre and fellow Frenchman, tattletale rival, and established Formula One Champion Alain Prost.
While the film centers only on Senna’s Formula One career and not his personal life, there is plenty of drama.
The film begins with the dramatic Formula One Grand Prix in Monaco in 1984. It begins to rain, and Senna is overtaking Prost just as Prost appeals to the judges to call off the race, the increasing rain creating conditions too dangerous in which to race. Focused Senna doesn’t see the red and checkered flags and believes he has won, having clearly passed Prost. And so the stage is set….
Senna experiences unfair decisions regularly, even when his protests are in the interest of the safety of all drivers. The scenes of the drivers’ meetings before the races, particularly the meeting before the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990 is particularly intense.
Prost and Senna become comfortable teammates, then bitter rivals, and finally reconcile (prompted by Senna not long before his death). Formula One was only too happy to promote their rivalry as it increased attention and ratings. Prost rehabilitated his antagonstic image by attending Senna’s funeral (he was even a pallbearer) and serving on the board of the Instituto Aryton Senna.
Less dramatic, but more touching, is the evolution of Senna’s character. His victories coincided, or were caused by, as Senna himself believed, his increasing faith in God. He believed God was responsible when he won his first Brazilian Grand Prix, a childhood dream. He described the feeling of winning as that of a weight being lifted from him, feeling at peace, and absolutely no insinuation that those he defeated were lacking in faith. There is no false humility à la contemporary God-invoking athletes such as Albert Pujols or Tim Tebow. It revealed a humility that I, who consider myself in agreement with Bill Maher on the subject of religion, surprisingly found noble and enviable.
Senna won two Grand Prix in his native Brazil. During this second race, God may have indeed been on his side by bringing on the rain, a condition that brought out the best in Senna, but was seemingly absent when Senna’s gearbox stuck, forcing him to complete the remaining laps in 6th gear, an almost impossible physical achievement; his hands had to be pried from the wheels after he crossed the finish line, he had spasms in his head and neck, and then fainted.
In my opinion, the most moving scene occurs during the credits. In 1992, during the Belgian Grand Prix, Senna got out of his car to rescue another driver who had crashed. A car-racing friend of mine explained the astonishing speed of judgment and technical genius that Senna had. He was able to determine, in a split-second, with helmet and earplugs on, the sounds of the other engines speeding by, all impairing his hearing, that the accelerator was being held down, and therefore the driver was unconscious. Here’s the moving story (not included in the movie).
Aryton Senna was killed May 1st, 1994 during a race in Imola, Italy that seemed to have a disproportionate share of disasters. Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed the day before Senna died; watching Senna watching the accident is haunting.
While the cause of Senna’s death was of a mechanical nature, it is suspicious that the technology that influenced his choice of car was banned subsequent to his decision to change teams. Despite appearing political, there is no evidence to support the many conspiracies that unfortunately continue to flourish.
His death motivated Formula One to increase safety measures; no driver has died since.
According to Wikipedia, his grave attracts more visitors than those of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy combined.
An extended Blu-Ray DVD will be released in March, 2012.